Watkins departure causes scramble

Friday, January 4th 2002, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ U.S. Rep. Wes Watkins billed his decision to retire at the end of his term as a way to simplify Oklahoma's redistricting battle.

The result has been anything but simple.

Oklahoma is losing one of its six seats in the U.S. House because its population isn't growing as fast as other states. This meant that no matter how the new congressional districts were drawn, two incumbents would have to face each other in an election.

Then Watkins eliminated himself from the picture, saying he wanted the remaining five incumbents to have their own districts and not have to battle each other.

But since Watkins' announcement last week, Democrats and Republicans have expressed strong differences over how the five new congressional districts should be drawn.

Also, congressional incumbents seeking to influence the process are not in agreement on any new plan.

The Democratically controlled state Legislature is in charge of drawing the new districts, but Republican Gov. Frank Keating has the power to veto the plan. It would then wind up in state court.

Keating has threatened to veto any plan that places two incumbents in the same district.

Republicans view Watkins' leaving as an opportunity to protect the four remaining GOP incumbent congressmen. The only Democrat in the delegation is Brad Carson of the 2nd District.

Democrats see Watkins' departure as an opportunity to recapture the traditionally Democratic 3rd Congressional District. Watkins represented the district for 14 years as a Democrat before switching parties. Watkins will have served six years as a Republican by the end of his current term.

``We've got some work to do, but I don't think it is impossible to reach an agreement,'' said Rep. J.C. Watts, R-Norman, the fourth-ranking member of the Republican majority in the House.

Under a Democratic redistricting plan, Watts district would remain much the same except that he would pick up additional population in Oklahoma County.

One of Oklahoma's five Republican congressmen, 1st District Rep. Steve Largent, is resigning effective Feb. 15 to run for governor. Largent's successor will be chosen at an election on Tuesday. The race pits Republican state Rep. John Sullivan against Democrat Doug Dodd and two independents.

Watkins decided to retire after learning that a Democrat-sponsored map would write Payne County, his home county, out of the 3rd District, forcing him to move or run against incumbent Frank Lucas, who now represents the 6th District of western Oklahoma.

Under consideration for some time by Democrats is a new 3rd district that would resemble the old ``Little Dixie'' area of southeastern Oklahoma that former U.S. House Speaker Carl Albert represented.

Sen. Kevin Easley, lead redistricting negotiator in the Senate, said Watkins' action changes nothing on how lines should be drawn. There is no requirement to place an incumbent in the 3rd District, as Republicans are proposing, Easley said.

If there is no 3rd District incumbent, that would likely mean that 6th District Rep. Ernest Istook of Warr Acres, who now represents much of the Oklahoma City area, would be placed in a new district either with Lucas or Watts.

If Watts were moved to the 3rd District under a GOP plan, Istook and Lucas look to retain their bases of support.

Watts said he has friends in all parts of the state and would be comfortable running in any area. But he said he would not support a disproportionate realignment that ``would give me a challenge that would almost be insurmountable.''

``I think we should all share in this outreach effort,'' Watts said.

Easley, D-Broken Arrow, said a proposed, tentative Democratic plan would create five districts that meet the historical, legal criteria set forth in past court rulings on redistricting.

``We don't want these maps to look the least big gerrymandered,'' he said. ``They don't look like snakes. They look like logical, blocked districts.''

Currently, Oklahoma's 5th District stretches from Oklahoma City to the Kansas border and goes east to Bartlesville. When it was drawn in the 1980, critics said it was designed to put most Republicans in the state in the same district.

``A U.S. Census pamphlet shows the 5th District of Oklahoma as an example of gerrymandering,'' says E.Z. Million, Norman businessman and statistician.

Under the Democratic proposal, Tulsa would remain the core of the 1st District and the 2nd District would remain largely the same. The new 5th District in western and northern Oklahoma would be greatly expanded and would include Payne County, home of Oklahoma State University.

``We think that the state's agriculture district should include the state's agriculture university,'' Easley said.

The 4th District, now represented by Watts, would pick up additional population in Oklahoma County and would retain military bases in Oklahoma City, Lawton and Altus.

``No final decisions have been made,'' Easley emphasized.

With Watkins out of the picture, Sen. Glenn Coffee, R-Oklahoma City, said lawmakers should be able to write a map ``that doesn't put anybody anyone out of a job.''

``If we don't come to an agreement fairly quickly, I think the likelihood that we will wind up in court increases dramatically,'' said Coffee, a member of the Senate redistricting committee.

Everyone agrees a plan must be passed early in the 2002 legislative session to allow county election officials time to draw precinct lines for the upcoming elections in November.

Lawmakers finished legislative redistricting last year, but put off decisions on congressional boundaries.

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